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Passive House ambitions progress in Northern Ireland

By Barry McCarron, Chair of Passive House Association of Ireland

It is now 30 years since the first passive house building was built in Darmstadt, Germany. Passive House is a voluntary building standard that is truly energy efficient, comfortable, affordable, and ecological at the same time. Passive House is not a brand name, but a construction concept that can be applied by anyone and that has stood the test of practice.

The success of the standard is in the five principles which are 1. Superior Insulation, 2. Thermal Bridging, 3. Triple glazed windows, 4. Airtightness and 5. Mechanical Heat Recovery Ventilation.  

The United Nations has even advocated the standard as a mitigation measure to reduce the significant contribution (~40%) to carbon emissions from buildings. There is continued growth of the standard worldwide and here in the United Kingdom with almost ~60 local authorities, housing associations and cities leading the way in adopting and implementing the standard. These include Exeter, Norwich, Norfolk, Manchester, Glasgow, and Birmingham to name a few. The prestigious RIBA sterling prize last year was awarded to a Passive House social housing development called Goldsmith Street and later this year South West College will open the largest passive house premium building in the world in Enniskillen.

The publication New Decade New Approach in January 2020 outlined a commitment from the Executive to tackle climate change head on with a strategy to address the immediate and long-term impacts of climate change, along with the introduction of legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord. This is a welcome commitment and if delivered will also address the persistent prevalence of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.

The current Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012, came into operation on 31 October 2012. The Department of Finance is preparing to update these building regulations and it remains to be seen how ambitious they will be once published. In June 2019 the UK passed laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. This ‘net zero’ emissions target will require a significant reduction in energy-related emissions.

The Passive House Association of Ireland would advocate leadership which reflects the New Decade New Approach commitments and the good practice being employed by the many local authorities and cities in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Passive House standard has been proven to deliver high performance in terms of thermal comfort, excellent indoor air quality (now so important in the wake of the pandemic) and it also facilitates a pathway for the effective use of renewable energy. These claims are substantiated with 30 years of academic research including excellent local research conducted in both Ulster University and Queens University Belfast.

One of these recently examined the Multiple Benefits of Low Energy Housing in Northern Ireland[i]. The paper identifies a strategic opportunity for Northern Ireland with setting of new building regulations. The report concludes with a powerful finding that there are significant financial benefits for home occupiers and the exchequer, which if implemented now would accrue a financial benefit of over £1bn over a 10-year period[i]. This research corresponds and consolidates many other findings from research carried out across the world on the implementations of high-performance building standards.

The issue of cost is a common argument pedalled against the adoption of high-performance building standards. However recent developments have been built cost neutral in comparison to building regulations in other jurisdictions. Costs associated with Passive house projects continue to diminish as the methodology becomes more widely adopted.

New analysis suggests that there is a consistent trend of build costs falling over time and, as of 2018, best practice costs were around 8 per cent higher when set against comparable projects. For Northern Ireland, the extra costs associated with building to the Passive House Standard (compared with the minimum building regulations) has been shown to be as low as £5,000 for a 3 bedroomed dwelling[ii].

The Passive House Standard also provides a quality assured route for retrofit in the form of the EnerPhit standard. In December 2019, the NI Department for the Economy launched a Call for Evidence to inform the development of a new Energy Strategy for Northern Ireland to reach the target of net zero emissions.

This document says that approximately 85 per cent of our homes will still be standing in 2050 and that “significantly improving the energy efficiency of the more than 800,000 existing homes and buildings in NI will require investment, consumer buy-in and a comprehensive range of supporting policies.” Therefore, it is essential to deliver a retrofit solution which will also provide high performance into the future.

However, it costs more than £26,000 to reduce the energy efficiency consumption of a 3 bedroomed existing house to the energy efficiency standards recommended by the UK Climate Change Committee. This highlights the urgent need to ensure that we build right first time, given the relatively low cost of "best in class" solutions such as the Passive House Standard.

Recent announcements by the Northern Ireland government such as the consultation on the Programme for Government draft Outcomes Framework and the recently published report on the future of energy efficiency policy in Northern Ireland, demonstrate that the government is listening to those of us advocating for high performance buildings. But more can always be done by government and business – and faster, too. We will continue to advocate on those issues important to our members and critical to our environment. South West College is developing into a centre of excellence for energy efficiency and is currently offering fully funded Passive House designer and tradesperson training from the Department of the Economy skills development programme which will help increase skills, knowledge and awareness in the construction sector in order to meet demand if and when higher standards are eventually brought in. 


UK Passive House Trust - Newsletter Passive House Project numbers January 2021

UK Passive House Trust – Newsletter

Passive House project numbers January 2021

Uk Passive House Trust

UK Passive House Trust


Contact: Barry McCarron


[i] Colclough, S., Hewitt, N., & Griffiths, P. (2020). Unlocking the Potential - Low-Energy Dwelling with Heat Pump: Investigating their multiple benefits, and how to increase adoption rates. In PLEA2020 [paper 1680]


[ii] Colclough and McWilliams, “Cost Optimal UK Deployment of the Passive House Standard.” The International Conference on Innovative Applied Energy, Oxford, 2019. ISBN 978-1-912532-05-6.